Home > Political parties and ideologies > Labour Party > Being Socialist and the Labour Party
  • Feature

Being Socialist and the Labour Party

Tom Williams makes the case for organising strategically within the Labour Party

7 to 9 minute read


The Labour Party is awful. There is a strong argument that it is an obstacle to progressive change in Britain and therefore needs to die. Unfortunately, whether the left wants to reform it or kill it, we certainly need to engage with it, and probably need to be in it. To echo a line that’s already been said ad nauseum, Labour has never been a socialist party, but ‘a party with socialists in it’. To augment that old adage, it has never been an adequately democratic party either.

Democrats, socialists and democratic socialists have in fact been frequently excluded from the Parliamentary Labour Party by their more right- leaning opponents in the party via its opaque and undemocratic structures. Institutional privilege often allows right-wingers to stitch up selections. MPs pull levers to ensure that allies are selected as council candidates; staffers are regularly ‘rewarded’ with council seats.

The now infamous ‘Labour leaks’ document of private WhatsApp and email messages sent by senior party officials prompted explosive allegations about misuse of funds and factional abuse of complaints processes. It revealed that when Labour ‘moderates’ don’t get what they want, outright wrecking is the order of the day. Though now a matter of public record, the leaks have been almost completely ignored by legacy media. Currently, Labour ‘moderates’ are plotting to kick out more members and discussing rule changes that would seek to prevent the party from electing another left-wing leader by disempowering the rank-and-file members who fund the party.

But what of the unions? After the fudge of the ‘democracy review’ at the party conference in 2018, the unions have enormous power within Labour. With the world of work made even more uncertain by the Covid-19 crisis, surely they will push the party towards the sort of radical policy platform their members so desperately need? Well, maybe not. Comrades who cut up their Labour membership cards after Keir Starmer’s election and vowed to focus their organising energies on their unions may already have noticed that there are as many right-wingers in union bureaucracies as there are in the PLP. For union higher-ups with big salaries and generous pensions, the union has in some cases become an end in itself.

Far from demanding that Labour commits to repealing legislation that inhibits effective strike action, union leaders often become part of an alliance opposing radicalism in the party. Former GMB general secretary Tim Roache backed Owen Smith’s attempt to supplant Corbyn as Labour leader and reportedly attempted to have Labour’s ‘Green New Deal’ policy watered down during the party’s pre-election Clause V meeting in 2019. Even union leaders with seemingly robust socialist commitments have historically demurred from militancy at seismic moments. In 1974, for example, Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon persuaded the movement to consent to wage restraint under the ‘social contract’ agreed between unions and the Labour government.

If the left doesn’t organise within affiliated unions, this will continue to happen. If role holders in the labour movement – from branch secretaries to general secretaries – are not adequately representing the interests of labour, we must seek to replace them.

Defend and extend democracy

The most prominent organisations of the labour movement have a bizarre and self-sabotaging aversion to discussing reform of the UK’s unwritten constitution, and have been all but ignoring the imperative since the Chartists. Specifically, the Labour Party is suspiciously disinclined towards electoral reform, despite the fact that our undemocratic electoral system contributes to Labour mostly losing elections. The security blanket of Labourism plays its part in this, but so does an awareness on the party right that abandoning first-past-the-post would lead to a reconstitution and recomposition of the party that might not be in their favour. The status quo that protects decision- making from democratic oversight also protects their jobs, private sinecures and income streams.

Of course, the nervousness of Labour MPs, councillors and bureaucrats when it comes to electoral reform is many times multiplied when it comes to democratic reform of the party itself. Mandatory reselection of MPs by local members – a small bureaucratic tweak that would bring Labour into line with the Democratic Party in the US – is vociferously resisted by the Labour right, but neither was it prioritised under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, despite his longstanding membership of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy.

Labour has also failed to address the extreme centralisation of political power that renders local elections pointless in the eyes of many. Increased autonomy for local government is becoming an increasingly pertinent topic, but the expansion in scope for local democratic initiatives that meaningful devolution could bring about is precisely why the Labour establishment is unenthused by it. Some Labour councils are all too happy doing austerity on behalf of the Tories. Devolution would see them come under increased pressure from residents and unions to, for example, take buses into public ownership and stop bullying council workers.

So why stay in Labour?

Being in the Labour Party cannot be an expression of personal morality. Being in the Labour Party as a socialist should be seen as a means of being active in struggle.

Our immediate enemy in that struggle is the Labour right, currently drunk on power. Driving every socialist out of the party would take it close to bankruptcy without big donors, who currently don’t seem interested in contributing financially. A Labour Party with no left wing will be hostile to the unions that fund the party and are approaching a conjunctural moment in their history – the first uptick in membership in a generation. It is hard to see how a right-wing Labour Party almost entirely dependent on unions for its funding would be sustainable.

Workers in the UK are atomised and demoralised. There are beacons of resistance here and there, but there is nothing resembling a strong workers’ movement. Changing this will require changes at the level of the state: electoral reform, devolution and repeal of legislation that acts as a barrier to militant union and community organising (and therefore a left Labour government). It is far from the only barrier, though, and the moderate trade unionism from which Labourism derives predates anti-union lawfare.

Labourism is sustained by first-past-the-post, which precludes a truly socialist party that is electorally viable. Labour is not a shortcut to socialism, but as things stand there is no path to the political revival of the working class that does not partly go through Labour. This is not to deny that the party is an obstacle to socialism. It is not to deny, necessarily, that to achieve socialism, the Labour Party may need to be replaced with something new. Indeed, the best way of creating a new party is likely to be by organising within Labour.

Labour may never again have a leader as ideologically sound as Jeremy Corbyn. But as we survey the morass of ‘pragmatists’ who represent alternatives to Keir Starmer, we’d do well to keep in mind that a genuine pragmatist, an adept opportunist, would recognise that they could never be prime minister without radical policies, that radical policies would see an electorally disastrous rebellion from the Labour right, and that the best way of disciplining the Labour right would be open primaries allowing members to replace unruly MPs.

The future of the Labour left and a socialist Labour Party

Our prospects look bleak, but while we should eschew the clutching at straws of those who assume that every crisis will benefit the left, we must also recognise that the volatility of the economy and the electorate is likely to see a decade of churn and chaos. We can’t afford to absent ourselves from the battle to shape the outcomes of this. We may not feel that we belong in Labour, but the numerous wreckers and scabs who represent the interests of capital from within the party of organised labour probably don’t feel they belong either; they’re there to represent their own interests in a contested space.

The exodus of socialists from Labour has been significant, but the numbers are perhaps still there for the left to win votes. For this to be optimised, though, those members must be organised around a collective strategy, worked out democratically, and the strategy must be focused on democratising the party in ways that open it up to people in struggle. This would mean forcing Labour to support and participate in direct action, militant anti-fascism, grassroots campaigning and radical trade union struggles. All of these have essential roles to play in building class power and a sustaining social base.

If the left is to have any success in these aims, Momentum – as the UK’s biggest left wing membership organisation – will have a major role to play. Momentum’s Socialist Organising in a New Era painted some welcome broad-brush strokes, and the ‘Refounding Momentum’ process has been admirable in its efforts to engage the organisation’s membership – members have now been invited to help sculpt its politics. Momentum’s Leo Panitch leadership development scheme, its future councillors programme, and nascent racial justice programme and trade unionists network are all promising steps towards developing a cadre and connecting to class struggle in communities and workplaces. The approach of socialists in the UK can’t be ‘either/or’.

If Jeremy Corbyn had become prime minister in 2017, the ensuing counter-revolution would have made the one taking place now look tame, and Corbynism’s base would almost certainly not have been big enough to survive it. This is not immutable though. Our task ahead involves building up an appetite for socialist policies through organising and political education.

The conditions that produced Corbynism haven’t changed. If anything, they have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Even if what we truly want is an electorally viable party to the left of Labour, even if we want to take a wrecking ball to the British state and its ideological apparatuses – including the Labour Party – it is hard to see how we can get to that point without a reckoning with Labour.

This article first appeared in issue #232 ‘Rue Britannia’.

David Scott argues that our prison system represents a human rights disaster, and reformist solutions can’t tackle the root problems

For a monthly dose
of our best articles
direct to your inbox...